Monday, January 19, 2015

What Kind of Extremists? Living Letters from Birmingham Jail

I was honored to take part in this reading of Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail, written in response to public criticisms of the nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement. I wrote about my experience participating in this reading last month; you can read my reflections here.

King wrote this letter from prison, without access to his library or research notes, so you get a sense from this letter the deep theological underpinnings of the movement. You also get a sense of the contemporary urgency of the "basic constitutional rights" still being fought throughout and beyond the United States. Thanks to Red Letter Christians for taking on this project, and to Micky ScottBey Jones for her leadership in bringing this special project together.

I try to read this letter once or twice a year: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a good opportunity, as is the anniversary of King's death every April 4. Read it for yourself here.

Friday, January 09, 2015

More Like a Millennial: #FightBackwithJoy in 2015

The first time I met Margaret Feinberg, I knew I would like her. I knew because she gave me a candy bar. For free. And not one of those fun-sized ones; this was the whole enchilada, if you will, one of those candy bars you buy on impulse at check out. For free.

Margaret was leading a conversation about publishing with a millennial audience in mind when I met her. This is something she's particularly qualified to speak to, as she's published about a bazillion books and articles, and she's given herself to a millennial audience in each case. That's not to say that older (and now, sigh, younger) readers don't go for her stuff, because they do. But there's something in the Zeitgeist of the millennial generation that lends itself to freshness, hopefulness, a lightness of being that's not naive or simplistic. Reading millennial writing isn't always illuminating, in the sense of learning something new, but it is almost always enlightening, in the sense of easing your load and dispensing with darkness.

From left: Hershey, Margaret, Leif

So it's not surprising that a book - Margaret's latest, Fight Back with Joy - with so serious a subtext as cancer is nevertheless brisk and fun and defiant and lively. Margaret sent me some of the early chapters some time ago, which I was eager to read, as she tells her cancer story in the book. She does so with great vulnerability and courage; the anxiousness and suffering that attends to a cancer diagnosis is not neglected or minimized. But this isn't ultimately a book about cancer; it's a book about joy, and joy - not as a feeling but as a discipline, as a resource - permeates the book.

I doubt people who know me well would characterize me as "joyful." I do laugh a lot, and I crack a lot of jokes and enjoy a fair amount of playtime with my friends. But I think closer to the center of my life experience is cynicism, a jaded view of the world. Blame it on the music I listen to, if you want, or blame it on my generation: the X in "Generation X" likely stands for "Expect to be disappointed." In any case, when things get hard, I don't typically fight back with joy, as Margaret suggests; I more often fight back with snark.

I remember a time when I was editing a devotional, and I added the phrase "Yeah, right" to a mildly humorous entry - which was, I hasten to add, my right as editor of a work-for-hire writer. (See? Snark.) The writer demanded that I take the phrase out, with the condescending comment "I can't affirm that kind of sarcasm." You can perhaps imagine how eager I was to work with her again. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that sees sarcasm as a character flaw; I hear it in the voice of the Lord in the Sacred Scriptures, for God's sake:
"Go ahead! Cry out for help to the gods you’ve chosen—let them get you out of the mess you’re in!”

"Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much!"
The occasional sarcastic barb, I've come to understand, is one thing; a lifestyle grounded in cynicism is quite another. Sarcasm may punctuate a point, but cynicism is a kind of abdication of responsibility; it assumes that things that demand to be changed are unchangeable, and it consoles a person with the notion that at least you get it; at least you're not simplistic and naive enough to think change is possible. Cynicism as a lifestyle starts the human story with the fall of Adam and Eve and ends it with the latest bad day. It finds evidence of original sin everywhere it looks, because it expects to find it.

Cynicism is arguably chronic in our age, but it's no more inherent to our being than "original sin" is original to our existence. There's a story that predates the fall of Adam and Eve, a story that, as Margaret points out, is filled with joy.

A close inspection of the first chapter of Genesis describes the fabric of creation as knit together with divine affection and delight. Throughout the process of creation, God observes and celebrates the goodness of what he makes. The declaration “God saw that it was good” rings out like a holy chorus until God eyes all he has made and concludes, “It was very good.”

God’s repeated declaration of “good” suggests that God delighted in the outcome multiple times. God was so pleased and happy with the results that he percolated with joy. The rich imagery of Genesis 1 suggests the kind of creative high an artist experiences upon completion of a great work.

Another vivid illustration of the creation story is tucked into Proverbs. The personified voice of wisdom, one of God’s active attributes in creation, describes, “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”
Joy is inherent to God's approach to the world. Joy is characteristic of wisdom. As Margaret observes, "We spring from joy," because we are made in the image of God, and God is joyful in his bones.

TWEET THIS: Joy is inherent to God's approach to the world. Joy is characteristic of wisdom.

We lack imagination when we lack joy. But more than that, we lack the resources we need to persevere through the hardships we inevitably face. "More than whimsy," Margaret writes, "joy is a weapon we use to fight life's battles.

Sure, the virtue of joy is an upbeat companion for life, but that is not the whole story. The true power of joy supersedes a chirpy disposition, candy-coated emotion, or saccharine fantasy. It’s far more tangible than any magical notion of clicking your heels and discovering your bliss. Joy serves a useful and mighty purpose.
TWEET THIS: We lack imagination when we lack joy.

I haven't faced something so soul-shattering as a cancer diagnosis. But if (or when) I do (maybe this will be the year), I hope I'll face it less like an Xer and more like a Millennial, like Margaret. I hope I'll remember that despair is accidental to our existence; it doesn't enter the picture till Genesis 3, and it doesn't survive past Revelation 21. Before and after and all the way through the Bible - before and after and all the way through life - there is joy available to us, joy bred into us, joy undergirding us and overseeing us. Maybe this will be the year we lean into that fact and discover just how powerful joy is.

***

You can get a copy of Margaret's Fight Back with Joy pretty much wherever you want: from Amazon, from Barnes & Noble, from Christian Book Distributors, from an independent bookseller, maybe even from a local church. Give it a read, by yourself or with a group of friends. (There's a companion video series to support group discussion.) I know you'll like it, and you may well find yourself better equipped for the next joy-testing event in your life.

Fight Back With Joy 6-Session DVD Bible Study Promo Video from Margaret Feinberg on Vimeo.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Art of McCartney, Hubris of Music Industry

I am the target audience of the recently released record The Art of McCartney. I see the word McCartney, I click "Add to cart." In this case, however, I clicked "Add to Christmas list" (thanks, Ginny!) which explains this late review of the album. Sorry.

Paul McCartney is, undoubtedly, one of the most prolific musicians/songwriters of the past fifty years. Indeed, he's been actively contributing to the canon for more than half a century now, and he shows no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by his even more recent collaboration with Kanye West. Based on output, consistent quality and global influence, McCartney is certainly a good candidate for a tribute album by "the world's greatest artists." If only there were such an album.

I was eager to get into The Art of McCartney, and I should probably admit at the outset that I've listened to little else beside it since I opened my Christmas presents. That said, the album is, on balance, disappointing. And it could hardly not be. The album is an odd marriage of incredible hubris and, in many cases, creative laziness.

We begin with the hubris, amply demonstrated in the album's subtitle: "The Songs of Paul McCartney Sung by the World's Greatest Artists." I will quibble over the relative greatness of various contributors later, but for now let's just consider what is being said by this statement.

  1. When I, for one, see the word artists, I imagine a gathering far broader than music. I'm sure Terri Riches-Black (art director) and Stuart Crouch at Peacock (design) and David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images (cover photo) are great people and highly talented at what they do, but The Art of McCartney packaging is hardly on the fast-track to inclusion in the Louvre or the Smithsonian. It's text upon text upon text upon text, with a faint background photo of "Young Paul" behind the album's title and a centerfold of "signatures" from the "world's greatest artists" in an unimaginative script font.

    Would it have made the album prohibitively expensive to have commissioned some visual artists - really, one or two would have done it for me - to paint or sketch or otherwise produce an artistic representation of a few of McCartney's songs? Raccoons are hot right now, thanks to the enormous success of Guardians of the Galaxy (another Christmas present - thanks, Cheryl!); there's no artist out there in the world who could paint me a portrait of "Rocky Raccoon"? Or an embedded video of some interpretive dance based on "Silly Love Songs"? At the very least, scan the artists' actual signatures, rather than homogenizing them all in a font that comes standard in Microsoft Office.
  2. Maybe it's unfair of me to expect art when I'm handed the word artists; this is, after all, a collection of songs. But that only buys the producers of The Art of McCartney a few nanoseconds before I notice that "the world's greatest artists" are all in the field of popular music. What, Yo Yo Ma wasn't available to try his hand at "My Brave Face"? Wynton Marsalis couldn't give three minutes of his time to "The Pipes of Peace"? Is pop music (with the lightest touch of blues and jazz) the best art the world has to offer?
  3. And while we're at it, is the best pop music really dominated by white men from North America and Northern Europe? I mean, my collection of pop music surely is, but this is a collection of "the world's greatest artists" - 75 percent of whom are white and male, all of whom (with the possible exception of Toots Hibbert) are firmly ensconced in the First World. I thought pop rock was huge in Korea, but no Korean artists grace the album. I thought Paul loved Pussy Riot, but no love from Russia. I bet Ladysmith Black Mambazo would kill "Blackbird," but they, like "Blackbird," are nowhere to be found.

    There are, of course, artists closer to home who would have nicely diversified The Art of McCartney. Kanye is, apparently, a fan, and I for one would love to see what he could do with "Say, Say, Say." Stevie Wonder collaborated with Paul on "Ebony and Ivory" and "What's That You're Doing" and did a killer version of "We Can Work It Out" when Paul was awarded the Gershwin Prize a few years ago. But Stevie makes no appearance on this album. I count eight women and people of color combined on an album of thirty-six songs. The producers seem to think that, by and large, white men make the best music.
  4. But wait: at least the white people represented are, in fact, the world's greatest white artists. Right? Let's see: KIss, Def Leppard, Cheap Trick, Owl City, Alice Cooper, Sammy Hagar ... No disrespect to Owl City - I actually like their rendition of "Listen to What the Man Said" - but including them on a collection of the world's greatest artists is like giving Tina Fey the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor two years before giving it to Carol Burnett, or like opening the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Ringo Starr, Bill Withers and Green Day at the exact same time. I'm no enemy of the young, but there are some designations that only time can earn.
  5. One last complaint: these songs are "sung," yes, but they're also performed. I like Billy Joel's singing as much as the next guy, but the appeal of Billy Joel on "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Live and Let Die" is his talent as a pianist; same with Alan Toussaint on "Lady Madonna." Paul McCartney is distinguished from John Lennon most by his ambitious musicianship, so to reduce his songs to things that are sung is to fundamentally misapprehend why Paul is one of "the world's greatest artists."
I quibble. Forgive me. Despite the deep offense I've taken from the album's subtitle, I do enjoy listening to it - mainly, however, because it's a convenient collection of good songs by an artist I like. Most of the contributors stick pretty close to the original arrangements, which makes the songs easy to digest even if it doesn't mine the songs for their deepest meaning or inherent artistry. As much as I love Chrissie Hynde, her version of "Let It Be" casts no new light on the song. I can play it, or I can skip it, and I am neither better nor worse for it. The most egregious example is Hagar's "Birthday," which sounds like something he recorded at a karaoke kiosk at the mall. I seriously doubt he was in the same country as the house band behind him. (Note to Sammy Hagar: Repeatedly exhorting your listeners to "Come on!" does not a world's greatest artist make.)

There are, I think, three classes of contributors to The Art of McCartney: his appreciative contemporaries (e.g., Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan); those who appreciate him as a historical artifact (e.g., Owl City, The Airborne Toxic Event, Corinne Bailey Rae); and those who were directly influenced by or indebted to him (e.g., Paul Rodgers, Heart, Steve Miller). The older and the younger the contributors are, it seems to me, the less slavish their renditions of McCartney's songs. I actually love the strain in Smokey's voice as he sings "So Bad" and in that of Yusuf (Cat Stevens) as he takes on "The Long and Winding Road." Toots Hibbert (with Sly and Robbie, presumably of the Maytalls) does a great reggae version of "Come and Get It"; he doesn't seem too enthralled by McCartney to make a song his own, which I appreciate. And "Wanderlust" by Brian Wilson? Fantastic.

Similarly, the younger musicians on the album seem to retain their artistic objectivity and are able to both find the right McCartney song to perform and find the artistic core of it. Harry Connick Jr., who I acknowledge is not especially young but who beat the drum consistently on American Idol about song choice, reveals the excellent crooner qualities of "My Love," a nice contrast to Paul's higher-pitched, arena-sized rendition. Corinne Bailey Rae brings "Bluebird" out of the post-hippie basement and introduces us to the song's (and Paul's) jazz core. The Airborne Toxic Event strips down the cinematic "No More Lonely Nights" (a victim of 80s overproduction when Paul first put it out) and helps us tap into how it feels when you "can't wait another day until I call you." And Robert Smith makes "C Moon" sound exactly like a Cure song should.

That leaves the third category: the artists who in large ways or small owe their careers to Paul. These contributions work when the artists lean into the legacy. I was surprised to find that I most enjoy the rockers: Def Leppard, Cheap Trick, and of all things, Kiss?!? Paul, I think it's fair to say, was the founder and godfather of arena rock, which is the sweet spot of these folks. They aren't intimidated by big songs like "Helen Wheels," "Jet" and "Rock Show"; they dive into them and enjoy themselves in the performance. Steve Miller has a good time with "Junior's Farm" and, in contrast to Chrissie Hynde's overly self-conscious version of "Let It Be," makes the iconic "Hey Jude" sound like something he might have written himself.

That being said, the contributions that don't work, still work, because they're great songs by a great artist. The slavish arrangements of "Live and Let Die" and "Band on the Run" and "Eleanor Rigby" don't demonstrate the greatness of the artists performing them, but they do demonstrate the art of McCartney, who knows how to write and arrange and perform a song like nobody. It's nice to have this mix of singles and deep tracks all in one place, and even when I skip a song here and there now and then, I'm enjoying the overall experience on each listen. And while I am pretty offended by the hubris of the album's producers, for the reasons noted above, I do give them props: Paul has so many iconic ender songs, from "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" to "Live and Let Die" and Hello Goodbye"; and yet they chose as their final track of thirty-six songs something soft and gentle, loving and lovely.

"Put it there
If it weighs a ton" -
That's what a father says to his younger son.
"I don't care if it weighs a ton.
As long as you and I are here, put it there."

Thursday, January 01, 2015

You'll Probably Change the World: A New Year's Resolution from Martin Luther King Jr.

This past year I've reflected a lot on the Civil Rights Movement, in part because the-fifty-year anniversaries of seminal moments in the movement keep popping up on the calendar, but mostly because the news is filled with regular reminders that the fight for basic human rights is far from over. I find myself turning regularly to the writings of Martin Luther King, the movement's most public and prolific champion of nonviolent direct social action as a force for cultural change.

White memory of the Civil Rights Movement tends, I think, to focus on its emphasis on nonviolence. It's noble, poetic and, of course, absent of conflict. What's not to like? But this memory is selective at best, sentimental at worst. The notion of nonviolence divorced from direct action removes virtually all value from it; nonviolence becomes docility, meekness, impotence. Introduce direct action and white memory quickly becomes uncomfortable, because the nonviolence of demonstrators for civil rights was contrasted with the despicable violence of its opponents.

TWEET THIS: The notion of nonviolence divorced from direct action removes virtually all value from it.

The graphic novel March (volume two of three comes out in early 2015) does a great job of describing, in prose and pictures, the violent reactions to nonviolent direct action; more compellingly even, it portrays the discipline and spiritual preparation that came before every action.

Jim Lawson trained college students in Nashville (including future U.S. congressman John Lewis, the narrator of March) to engage in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. They prepared themselves to be spit on, cursed at, scalded with hot coffee, burned with cigarette butts, and otherwise physically attacked - all while maintaining their composure and commitment, all for the simple reward of sitting down to eat in a public place. Similar preparation was involved in marches in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, where nonviolent demonstrators were attacked with dogs and firehoses by public officials. Nonviolence confronted violence - both the physical violence of reactionary racists and the insidious violence of institutionalized racism. Nonviolence won.

"In any nonviolent campaign," Dr. King wrote in his letter to critical white clergy from Birmingham Jail in the midst of a direct action in that city, "there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action." Those four steps undergird every nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement; they preceded the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, the march on Selma, Alabama, the citywide protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the lunch-counter sit-ins throughout the South. In the warm glow of history we often lose sight of how much work goes in to social change. We picture George Washington and Thomas Jefferson happily pouring tea into a harbor; we picture Mohandas Gandhi waving goodbye to British troops as they finally let his people go; we picture Nelson Mandela smiling and shaking hands with the warden as he walks out of prison on Robben Island. We forget that even nonviolent campaigns for justice don't succeed without a fight.

TWEET THIS: Even nonviolent campaigns for justice don't succeed without a fight.

You prepare yourself for a fight. What follows, quoted from King's book Why We Can't Wait, is how the soldiers in the battle for civil rights in America prepared themselves for their fight.

It strikes me that these are not casual commitments; you don't just do them until they've gotten you what you want. These are lifestyle commitments, life-changing commitments. They lend themselves to far more than nonviolent direct action, actually: commit yourself to these things and you'll probably get into some trouble; but commit yourself to these things and you'll probably change the world.

I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF—MY PERSON AND BODY—TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT.

THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:

  1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement ... seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
  3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.

TWEET THIS: Commit yourself to these things and you'll probably change the world.